This week, the Blog Maven got to chat with The Nightshade Cabal author, Chris Patrick Carolan. With a wink and twist of his fine mustache, the Scotland-born Crime/ Fantasy writer opens up about his past and current literary inspirations, Cabal "Easter eggs", and The
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1. Your debut novel, THE NIGHTSHADE CABAL, just released yesterday.
What was your literary journey like while writing it?
This book was almost written by accident. I love the idea of mixing magic with
technology, and writing a technomancer’s story was something I first attempted in a
second world fantasy novel. That draft ultimately went nowhere, but it led me to try
dropping a technomancer into a Victorian setting. I never intended to write
steampunk, but it made sense to me that combining magic with the industry of the
day would result in something that looks very much like steampunk. Embracing that
really opened up Isaac Barrow’s world to me, and the story grew from there.
2. Is there a scene in NIGHTSHADE that made you cry while writing it?
I’m not usually a very emotive person, so I can’t say anything in the book made
me cry, but there is one scene in Chapter 16 that I consider to be very much a turning
point for Barrow. It still chokes me up a bit when I reread it.
3. Would you consider your protagonist a good person? Be honest.
Isaac Barrow is definitely a reluctant hero. He’s self-absorbed, socially
awkward, and just a bit of a curmudgeon. He doesn’t seek out the scrapes he finds
himself in and would rather spend his time working on his inventions or researching
the supernatural than chasing down murderers or fighting walking corpses. But he
also realizes he’s the only person who can contend with the supernatural menaces
lurking in the dark corners of 1880s Halifax.
Is he a good person, though? Yes, I think so. He’ll always step up and do the
right thing. But he’d rather be left alone.
4. How does a big ego help writers? How can it hinder writers?
I’ve heard a writer must simultaneously believe “The book I’m writing is the
greatest work in the history of literature” and “The book I’m writing is utter doggerel
that no one will ever read.” It’s a balancing act, and if I’m being honest I have to
admit I definitely lean toward the latter. But you also have to believe in your work and
send it out into the world. If that’s ego, so be it. The greatest book ever written may
be languishing unread in some drawer somewhere because its author didn’t have the
confidence to let anyone see it.
5. What is the darkest thing you’ve ever written?
I’ve dabbled a bit in crime fiction, and had one short story featuring a pair of
private detectives named Whiff and Warner published so far (‘Circle of Steel’ in Baby,
It’s Cold Outside: Dark Tales of Christmas Crime, Holiday Horror, and Yuletide Woe, Coffin
Hop Press 2018). That story isn’t particularly dark, really, but other pieces I’ve written
with these characters have gotten pretty grim. I think that’s a result of writing
something with no speculative element whatsoever—in these stories, all of the tension
and conflict has to come from regular people being inhumanly terrible to each other.
Frankly, reading true crime is far more horrifying than anything any horror writer can
come up with, and trying to channel some of that variety of evil into fiction can be
pretty heavy stuff.
6. What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a
I was fortunate to find a local speculative fiction writing group called The
Imaginative Fiction Writers Association a few years ago. It’s a critique group with
monthly meetings where writers swap work, read a sample aloud, and offer feedback.
We regularly have close to fifty members in the room, and it sounds like that would
be chaos, but it’s actually an incredibly supportive and constructive environment for
the most part. We go out for beers after the meeting, and just spending a few hours
talking about writing with other writers is something you can’t put a price on.
I’ve made some great connections through the local writing community. Too
many to name, really. I already feel bad for not listing over a hundred names here! I’m
happy to call writers like Brent Nichols, Craig DiLouie, Elizabeth Whitton, Jayne
Barnard, P.J. Vernon, and Kevin Weir friends. Robert Bose, Sarah L. Johnson, and
Axel Howerton are wonderful folks I had the good fortune to work with on my one
published crime fiction story (so far). I worked at a music store with Mike Thorn, like,
ten years ago, and now we know each other again through writing. Randy Nikkel
Shroeder was actually one of my professors when I was in university, and we
reconnected through the writing community a while back, too. Calgary actually has a
surprisingly active, engaged, and diverse writing community. It’s so cool!
7. Is The Nightshade Cabal a planned series?
I certainly hope so! I have ideas for several books with these characters, and
I’m currently working on a sequel, which I’m hoping to finish up by this summer.
There are a few seeds I planted in the first book that I’d really like to have the chance
to see sprout. I guess it will depend on whether or not readers want to see more of
Isaac Barrow and his world. The next book has a werewolf in it, so there’s that to
look forward to.
8. If you could tell your writing-self ten years ago anything, what would it be?
My advice to my younger self would have more to do with publishing than
writing. The Nightshade Cabal languished with a supposedly interested publisher for
over two years before I decided to pitch it elsewhere. They had even sent me a
contract early on, which was full of wholly unacceptable terms—it’s pretty standard
for publishing contracts to include things like film and television rights, which the
author is always expected to negotiate to keep for themselves. It’s a tactic some
publishers use so they can say they’re making concessions to the writer without really
giving anything up. Thankfully, I ended up signing with a publisher who doesn’t play
But this other publisher wanted me to sign over the rights to things like stage
plays based on my book, action figures, and theme park rides. Seriously. Theme park
rides. They said everything in the grant of rights was negotiable when I called them on
it, but communication became pretty sparse after that, and I definitely waited too long
before saying enough is enough. They came under fire last year for not paying their
backlist authors, so perhaps I dodged a bullet there.
Most publishers state “no simultaneous submissions” in their guidelines, and I
can understand why. But at the same time, having a manuscript tied up for years on
end doesn’t do the writer or the publisher any favours, and you have to know when
it’s time to move on from a dead end.
9. How did publishing your first book change your artistic process today?
I’d like to think I’m more focused now. I have a habit of flailing away on
several different projects at once, and not making much progress on any of them as a
result. I still have a few other things on the go, but I’m putting most of my writing
time toward the sequel to The Nightshade Cabal right now.
10. When did you first learn that language wielded power? What did that moment
This is going to sound incredibly corny, but it was the 1986 animated
Transformers: The Movie. Optimus Prime arrives on Earth and sees the destruction the
Decepticons have rained down on Autobot City. The landscape is in ruins and
countless of his friends lay dead. He knows this is the last stand. He simply states,
“Megatron must be stopped, no matter the cost,” and heads into battle.
In those eight words, we know how much he’s going to put on the line to put
an end to this. It’s not just his own life he’s willing to risk, but he’s also finally
accepting that the war only ends if he’s willing to set aside his own principles and take
Megatron down for good. Optimus Prime always believed in mercy and redemption,
but in this declaration, he sets aside the very core of his morality to do what needs to
Trust me, it was a pretty heavy moment for a seven-year old kid to take in.
11. We base many characters on celebrities; are there any characters in this novel
inspired by real people? Or a dream cast? Who are they?
I grew up watching Jeremy Brett play Sherlock Holmes on the old Granada
series, and while I didn’t realize it while I was writing the first draft, a lot of his
portrayal influenced Isaac Barrow. I was also watching a lot of Doctor Who at the time
and some of David Tennant’s energy found its way into Barrow as well. If I had to
pick a living actor to play Barrow, though, I think Stephen Kunken (Ari Spyros on
Billions) would be perfect.
Inspector Eddings was more or less directly influenced by Thomas Craig as
Inspector Brackenreid on The Murdoch Mysteries in the first draft, but I think Daniel
Craig or Sam Neill would be ideal. I have actors in mind for quite a few of the other
characters, some of whom only came to me after the book had been written.
Amybeth McNulty from Anne with an E would be a perfect Emily Skye, and Claes
Bangs from BBC’s Dracula would be great as Johan Morgentaler. Simu Liu from the
Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience is going to make a real name from himself as
Marvel’s Shang-Chi next year, but maybe we can lock him down for Lai Jūn now.
And it’s almost a rule that Tom Holland has to be in every book’s dream cast
right now, so he can be the steamcarriage driver, Declan McMurray.
12. What did you edit out of this novel that you may or may not regret nixing?
The earliest attempt at a draft was written in the first person and narrated by a
character who was subsequently cut out completely. James Pendleton was a client who
hired Barrow and followed him through the case as an observer who knew nothing
about the occult. He was a fun character—even if the conceit was very much a
Doctor Watson rip off—and the book is far better without him in it. I might find a
way to use him in a future story.
13. In your opinion, what are the ethics of writing about historical figures in
This is something I’ve given a lot of thought over the last few years. I didn’t
directly use any historical figures as characters in this book, but I do make reference
to quite a few. For example, in the book it’s suggested inventors like Thomas Edison
and Leonardo da Vinci were technomancers. I think writing something that’s clearly
alternate history buys a writer some license to play around with certain things like this,
but I also try to stick close to the actual historical record for the most part. When
discussing actual individuals or events, I try to make it clear that any opinions or
judgements being declared are those of the character speaking them, and not myself
as the writer. It’s a rather tricky balancing act.
14. Do you read your own book reviews? How do you deal with the bad ones, if
Ernest Hemingway once said, “Critics are men who watch a battle from a high
place then come down and shoot the survivors.” I think he was onto something there.
That said, I’m still new enough at this that I read every review. When I come across
criticisms, I try to learn from them. One review I read recently missed the point of
one of my characters completely, but that might indicate that I missed something
along the way, and it gives me a chance to address the issue in the next book. Any
chance to learn and grow as a writer is worth taking. Hemingway also once flew to
New York and hit a critic in the face with a copy of his book following a scathing
review, and I don’t know if either of them really learned much from that exchange.
Ultimately, though, sometimes the book you wrote won’t be the book the
reviewer wanted to read, and that’s okay, too. I recently received a two-star review
from a reader who didn’t like the book because she doesn’t read historical fiction. I
mean, it’s fine if my book is not your cup of tea, but why volunteer to read and review
something in a genre you don’t actually like reading? Sorry, but that one’s on you, not
15. Do you hide any “Easter eggs” in your books that only a few people will find?
That’s half the fun! There are a few Easter eggs in The Nightshade Cabal,
including one very unintentional Harry Potter joke. I pepper a lot of literary
references into the book—Isaac Barrow definitely takes after me in being something
of a lit nerd. There’s even a passing reference to a local bookstore called The Owl’s
Nest that’s incredibly supportive of the local writing community.
One of my current works in progress is a space opera heavily influenced by
classic anime and SF comics, stuff like Heavy Metal magazine. Many of names of the
planets, spaceships, corporations, and characters incorporate the names of the artists
whose work I grew up with.
16. What was the hardest scene to write into this novel?
There’s a scene in one of the early chapters where Barrow suspects human
brain tissue has been used to create a memory cylinder for a sort of steampunk word
processor. Writing the passage where his suspicions are confirmed was pretty heart-
17. Google yourself. What’s the first thing that pops up?
My own website, which reminds me that I really need to update my website.
18. What’s one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
My day job. Not even joking. My stories and novels are very much written in
stolen moments, lunch breaks, etc. Having the time to focus solely on writing for even
a few hours each day would make a huge difference.
19. What is your favorite childhood book? Did any of your childhood reads inspire
your writing style/ voice in The Nightshade Cabal?
I read a lot as a kid, and always tended toward science fiction and fantasy, and
even some horror. Some of my favourites were the Bunnicula books, My Teacher is an
Alien, stuff like that. Like every kid, I loved dinosaurs, and my mother bought me The
Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth to take to camp one year. I remember it was the
first book I read that was written in first person POV, and that blew my mind! Of
course, add in a triceratops hatching out of a chicken’s egg, and I was hooked. A few
years later my sister introduced me to The Belgariad by David & Leigh Eddings, and I
read almost nothing but fantasy for the next five years.
The biggest influence in my youth, though, was Prince of the North by Harry
Turtledove. I think I was fifteen or so when I checked it out of the library based solely
on the Larry Elmore cover art, and it turned out to be the first book I read that made
me sit back and say, “I want to do this one day.” Just the right book at the right time,
and I still reread it once a year or so. I’ve read several of Mr. Turtledove’s books since,
and I’d say his writing is probably the biggest influence on my own prose.
20. What’s one negative aspect of your protagonist? What’s one positive aspect of
As I said before, Isaac Barrow can be self-absorbed to the point of being
downright neglectful when it comes to his friends. His obsessive nature makes him
good at his job, but if I’m being honest, I’m not sure the isolation is doing him any
favours. Maybe something will come along and break him out of his shell.
As for the book’s antagonist, I don’t want to say too much and give away the
mystery, but he’s every bit as brilliant and inventive as Barrow. Perhaps even more so.
If not for certain circumstances in his past, he may even have been an ally in the
struggle against the darker forces. So it goes.